Over the past seven years, Xi Jinping has repeatedly told Indian leaders he wants a different and better relationship with India. New Delhi was baffled that events on the ground seemed to belie the Chinese leader’s pronouncements. It is assumed Galwan Valley marks the end of any belief Beijing genuinely seeks a “new paradigm” in the bilateral relationship.
Xi first signalled his interest in 2013 when he met then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the BRICS summit in South Africa. Next year, he told the incoming Indian ambassador Ashok Kantha, he saw improving ties as a “historic mission” and saw the two working together on global issues. Says Kantha, “Unusually, Xi personally took charge of the India policy. When the foreign minister visited India he was given the additional title of Xi’s special emissary.”
The Chinese leader asked to become the first foreign leader to meet the newly elected Narendra Modi. A military confrontation in Ladakh took place the day the visit began. Xi told Modi he had no knowledge of the event. Beijing, through various channels, later sent word rogue elements in the military were to blame. This was not impossible. Xi was in the midst of a brutal purge of the People’s Liberation Army officer corps. The local commander in Ladakh was subsequently removed.
The honeymoon of possibility continued through 2015. Even though “relations took a dip in 2016-17” says Kantha, Xi never changed his tune about the relationship. He spoke of changing relations in over a dozen meetings with Modi, ranging from the G-20 summit in Germany to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Kazakhstan. A message of a glorious future together was echoed at diplomatic levels and even at Sino-Indian track two events.
However, evidence of Xi’s rhetoric translating into action on the ground was scanty. China opened the door to SCO membership, but blocked India joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The two sparred for influence in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Yet, Xi kept expressing a desire for what another ex-Indian ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale, called the “new paradigm” in relations. Whether relations were half full or half empty was not always easy to determine given the underlying rivalry between the two countries. The Doklam border crisis nearly shuttered the attempts at rapprochement. But there was room for interpretation. China’s incursion was into Bhutanese territory and not covered by existing Sino-Indian border agreements. Had they miscalculated? After the incident, the local PLA commander simply disappeared.
Why did India persist for so long? New Delhi wanted to build on the “peace and tranquillity” agreements that stretched back to 1993. “We were hoping for a kind of calm in the relationship that would keep the border quiet and allow the rest of it, economics, tourism and so on, to flourish,” says Bambawale. A stable China relationship would have been an enormous diplomatic gain for India, a prize well worth many efforts. False starts and dead ends are common in diplomacy. There was also a concern problems between the two countries were “accumulating”, says Kantha. “Problems were building up,” agrees Bambawale.
And then there was Xi and his repeated assurances. There were elements in the Chinese system, notably the military and intelligence services, known to be deeply hostile to India. Senior Indian officials say New Delhi hypothesized Xi was receiving negative inputs from them. After all, India had led the campaign against the Belt Road Initiative, the Quad had been revived and there was always Pakistan. Seeking an out-of-the-box solution, India came up with the idea of an informal summit. Don’t seek quick fixes for the intractable, like the border and trade issues. Instead, let Modi and Xi meet for several hours and, importantly, without bureaucratic filters. There was no question of being friends, but at least an attempt could be made to build trust at the highest level. “Bonhomie at the top sends signals down the system and things tend to go more smoothly down below,” said Bambawale.
The blood shed in Galwan Valley has effectively ended this experiment in engagement. Multiple intrusions ranging across the entire Himalayan frontier would require the PLA’s western theatre command to have been involved. Say Indian officials these are senior officers who would have not moved without Xi’s okay. It may never be known whether Xi was genuine about changing the relationship and changed tack later or whether he simply was spinning a web of illusion from the start. Either way, a new paradigm in Sino-Indian relations has begun but not of the variety New Delhi had hoped for.